"Music is a moral law" – A Quotation from Plato?

One of my favourite quotes about music, relative to its therapeutic effects, is:

Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form (Plato). (Wordsworth Dictionary of Musical Quotations, 1991, p. 45).

The Wordsworth Dictionary attributes this quote to Plato, but curiously does not cite from which book of Plato’s writings the quotation is derived. As a music therapist who also practices the Bonny Method of Guided imagery and Music, this quote is particularly appealing to me. It speaks of the essence of music within the moral fibre of a society, as well as the extra-musical attributes, enhancing imagination, creativity, and passion. It is therefore a quote I like to use often. A Google search on "Music is a moral law" unearths hundreds of musicians, politicians, T-shirt vendors, bands, orchestras, churches, and music schools who all confidently attribute the quote to Plato.

I was always taught, however, to check the primary source of quotations. There are good reasons to check the original author’s words rather than cite a middle person, who may have misinterpreted, or inaccurately reproduced the original words. And so I set about confirming that the words of this favourite quote were indeed Plato’s words.
The Collected Dialogues of Plato Including Letters, edited by Hamilton and Cairns, (1961, Bollingen Series LXXI), states that Plato was born about 428 B.C. and died at eighty, or eighty-one, in 348 BC (p. xiii). He was a philosopher and poet, but not, according to Cairns, a mystic (p. xv). In the 28 dialogues (and one book of letters), Plato speaks of the arts and specifically about music. He writes that music, as a whole, (and discourses, and tales of imagination), have the effect of delighting us "if they are beautiful" (Hipp maj 298a).

In the Republic, Plato outlines his view of the qualities of the modes of the time. The mixed Lydian and ‘higher’ Lydian modes were considered dirge-like, whereas the Ionian and Lydian were the soft and convivial modes that were considered unbefitting for "guardians" of the state, and for warriors. The Dorian mode however was fitting for steadfast endurance, specifically for a man engaged in warfare or enforced business who had either failed, or was wounded, whereas the Phrygian mode was considered fitting for acts of peace and acquiescence (The Republic, III, 399a-b).

Perhaps the most convincing writing about music is explored within the context of education. Music is "most sovereign because . . . rhythm and harmony find their way to the inmost soul and take strongest hold upon it . . . imparting grace, if one is rightly trained . . . " (The Republic, III, 399e). And one who is "properly educated in music would perceive, . . . and take delight in beautiful (music), and take it into his soul to foster its growth (The Republic, III, 402).

Throughout his writings however Plato’s censure of music is obvious – that musicians should aspire to perfect performance, to achieve a perfect balance of rhythms and harmonies. And that excessive emotion can only lead to imperfections of performance, and for that reason should be avoided. This seems to be in direct contrast with the quotation attributed to Plato above, and therefore throws some disquiet on the legitimacy of the quotation. In particular it is unlikely that Plato advocated music as bringing "wings to the mind", and "flight to the imagination" since these are the excesses that could impact negatively on perfect performance. The painstaking search for the quote above in the Collected Dialogues therefore has so far been disappointing – I find no matching quote in the Collected Dialogues, and in fact nothing remotely similar to it.

One of the mitigating factors in this search is the translation itself – different translators offer different perspectives of the relative importance of certain concepts and words in the ancient Greek writings, and this compounds the search for the authenticity of the quotation.

But, if in fact Plato did not write the quotation above, whose writing is it? Aristotle believed music has cathartic powers, so perhaps the quote belongs to him. Aristotle’s clearest reference to music comes at the end of his book Politics. He classified melodies into three categories – ethical melodies, melodies of action, and passionate or inspiring melodies, each having a mode and harmony corresponding to the intent.

Music was to be studied with a view to 1) education, 2) purification [catharsis] . . . and 3) for intellectual enjoyment, for relaxation and rest after exertion. Ethical melodies were to be used for educational purposes, and melodies of action and enthusiastic melodies for concerts where other people performed. Aristotle (translated by Jowett, 1885) then discusses the notion of catharsis:

For feelings such as pity and fear, or enthusiasm, exist very strongly in some souls . . .some persons fall into a religious frenzy, whom we see disenthralled by the use of mystic melodies, which bring healing and purification to the soul. . . The melodies of purification give an innocent pleasure to mankind." (p. 257)

Although some elements of catharsis might relate to the therapeutic benefits of music, Aristotle’s writings also do not come anywhere close to "wings of the mind, and flights of imagination" either.

And so the search for the original source of the quotation continues. The phrase "music is a moral law," suggests the author may be a philosopher, and one probably from the classic Greek period. But are the words Plato’s?

In the interim it seems appropriate to cite the Wordworth Dictionary of Musical Quotations as the source of the quote, and to cautiously "attribute" the quote to Plato until a match can be found.

And on this note of inquiry I conclude my final column for Voices as co-Australasian editor, as my time with Voices has come to an end. However my support and enthusiasm for Voices will continue. It remains one of the best avenues for sharing ideas, concerns and knowledge about music therapy across the world.


Hamilton, E & Cairns, H [Ed.](1961). The Collected Dialogues of Plato Including Letters. Bollingen Series LXXI. New York. Pantheon Books.

Jowett, A (trans). (1885). The Politics of Aristotle. Oxford at the Clarendon Press.

Wordsworth Dictionary of Musical Quotations (1991), compiled by Derek Watson, Ware, Hertsfordshire, Wordsworth Editions Ltd.

How to cite this page

Grocke, Denise (2006). "Music is a moral law" – A Quotation from Plato?. Voices Resources. Retrieved January 08, 2015, from http://testvoices.uib.no/community/?q=colgrocke061106